Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Einstein's Paradox

Almost daily, we hear alarming news of ecological catastrophes. Climate change tops the list, with staccato-like reports of disappearing ice sheets, record droughts, and rising sea levels. Yet many other eco-disasters make the news cycle as well, among them disappearing fisheries, topsoil, aquifers, and rainforests. No question, humanity is in a lot of trouble just now. Over the past century, we’ve driven the living world to the ragged edge. To speak of the collapse of civilization may sound more like high drama than impending reality, particularly since things seems to be chugging along just fine at the moment. But the interwoven nature of the global economy (made evident in the recent, widespread economic “downturn”) means that the entire system--that is, civilization—is very sensitive to changes. Make no mistake: we are currently heading down a dark path. Food security in particular has the potential to lead to human suffering on a scale so vast as to be unimaginable (1).

Even more abundant in the headlines are debates over “green” solutions—nuclear versus wind power, local versus organic foods, hybrid cars versus rapid transit, cap and trade versus tax reform. Yet what if our current crisis demands far more than external remedies? What if the core of the problem isn’t “out there” in the environment, but rather inside our minds, more a matter of perception? The truth is, we have the necessary technology, know-how, and money to set humanity and the biosphere on a sustainable path (1). We simply aren’t taking the appropriate actions, as evidenced by the lack of a meaningful agreement reached by world leaders at the recent climate change summit in Copenhagen. Despite the bounty of rhetoric from governments and multi-national corporations, we are not behaving as if the planet is in peril.

In an earlier post, I argued that the single greatest obstacle to sustainability is an outdated worldview that places humanity external and superior to nature. As long as nature is “other,” composed of objects and resources rather than subjects and relatives, how can we possibly hope to establish a mutually enhancing relationship with the nonhuman world?

The most important question of the 21st Century, then, may be this:

How do we rapidly shift Western worldviews so as to re-establish humanity as a part of nature?

At the heart of this question lies a conundrum that might be called “Einstein’s Paradox.” Albert Einstein famously claimed that, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” Yet if our significant problems require a new way of thinking, and we remain mired in out-dated thinking, how are we to initiate the transition? The view from inside nature contrasts so fundamentally with our present worldview that the necessary transition is unlikely to occur solely among adults, at least not in the brief time available. The solution to Einstein’s Paradox, I am convinced, will be rooted in children.

Worldviews are like air, sustaining us while remaining largely invisible and unconsidered. As adults, we tend to be firmly entrenched in the dominant perspective, so much so that we often think that our way is the only way of seeing the world. When it is pointed out to us that other cultures have alternative, often radically contrary ways of understanding the world and humanity’s place within it (2), we cling to the notion that our perspective must be the best, or at least the most accurate. Unconsciously, those of us living in Western societies have erected high, defensive walls that, among other things, tend to prevent us from seeing ourselves as embedded in nature, or even feeling a sense of compassion for the nonhuman world. Of course, numerous individuals, grassroots organizations, and even some governments are establishing closer, more intimate links between humans and nature (3), with the number growing daily. To give a single stunning example, in 2008 Ecuador became the first country to grant constitutional rights to nature (4). It is this remarkable, global trend toward linking humans with nonhuman nature that gives me the most hope. Nevertheless, given the gaping human-nature chasm that remains, together with the pace of change required, the necessary shift simply cannot be realized among adults only.

Young minds possess far greater capacity to learn and embrace novel—in this case more sustainable—perspectives. Think of how easily children become fluent in new languages relative to adults. Now think about children raised on a worldview that regards humans not as conquerors of an external nature but as co-creators existing within nature.

Far from passing responsibility on to future generations, however, we must demonstrate the courage, wisdom, and foresight to cultivate the “Insider’s” perspective, at least to the degree possible. Only then will we make the required transformations in both parenting and education. Amongst the necessary changes will be frequent unplugging of our children from the virtual world, encouraging them to spend abundant time outdoors in sensuous contact with the real world. Adult mentors will be necessary to spark not only understanding but, equally important, awe and wonder. Schooling will be less about knowledge and more about wisdom, less about careers and more about living well in place. The Great Story, our epic myth, should be told and retold from childhood through adulthood, becoming our cosmology. Guided by new metaphors of nature, we must raise the next generation of children to stand on our shoulders, and give them new eyes with which to gaze far beyond our most distant horizons.

1. Brown, L. R. 2009. Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization. Norton, New York, 369 pp.
2. Davis, W. 2009. The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World. House of Anansi, Toronto, 280 pp.
3. Hawken, P. 2007. Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being, and Why No One Saw It Coming. Viking, New York, 342 pp.
4. http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/tag/ecuador/


  1. The world needs a conciousness raiser. It is so evident that we need to remember where we come from in the first place. I know that severing ties with the nonhuman world just spells doom. Some of us humans have created a world where we don't have to fear predators and the elements, and worry as much where our next meal will come from for example. The problem with people today is that no one really notices nature anymore, or knows what it's like to actually live in it (ie. like cities and urban centers).

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